Beyond Visible: Gina Prince-Bythewood on the Necessity of Black Women’s Cinema
There is a gloriously unaffected vibe about Gina Prince-Bythewood. Cerebral and sublime, casually beautiful and laser-focused, she has written and directed impressive television and film for the past twenty-plus years with equal parts rigor and joy. And she has achieved all this without losing her sense of self as a Black woman in America, and while continuing to fight to get personal projects made in Hollywood.
Prince-Bythewood has recently reached new heights by becoming the first Black woman to direct a major comic-book movie. That film—The Old Guard, starring KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron—premiered on Netflix in the summer of 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, to widely favorable reviews. Prince-Bythewood, though, is still best known for writing and directing her 2001 feature debut, Love & Basketball, which tells the indelibly original story of a young Black woman ballplayer. The film is not just a love letter to basketball but a paean to the complexity, ambition, and perseverance of Black womanhood. After writing for shows like A Different World and Felicity, Prince-Bythewood went on to direct for TV, including episodes of Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. She returned to the big screen in 2008 with The Secret Life of Bees, and again in 2014 with Beyond the Lights, which is when we first met.
I had known and admired Gina’s work; I don’t know a single Black woman who did not obsess over the love scene in Love & Basketball set to Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work.” But Beyond the Lights, from the opening scene, hit different. Here was the story of a young Black girl with a white mother who couldn’t see her daughter outside of her own white gaze. It echoed my own experience. I reviewed the film for an online blog and then requested an interview with Gina, which very quickly turned into a conversation that felt uncannily familiar. We were born within a month of each other, in 1969, and were both adopted into white families three weeks after being born. We had both spent our youth navigating all-white environments, desperately in search of a reflection of ourselves. We both turned to storytelling as a career path and a way to make sense of that experience.
Gina has written herself into the narrative—in the movies she’s brought to the screen, the family she’s made, and the world she’s created around her. In celebration of the new Criterion edition of Love & Basketball, we got together to catch up, reflect, and get into it.
Among the many things I admire about you is the way in which you have managed a career in Hollywood without getting into Hollywood mess. This is especially remarkable in light of how relentless and prevalent an impact social media has in your industry now. How do you decide what to take in, and how do you stay focused without getting into the mess?
That is a great question. Obviously, as a filmmaker you do work for an audience, so to be able to get that immediate feedback is a beautiful thing. Beyond the Lights was the first film where social media played a part in the audience response, and to be able to talk to people directly was great. But I also realized you cannot win an argument on Twitter. There’s no nuance to it, and you’re arguing with a faceless person who most likely would not say any of this if they were standing in front of you. There’s a boldness to anonymity.
I do think initially there was this sense that social media would democratize the playing field for people who might not otherwise be heard. Now, do some people abuse that? Of course. But at the same time, that’s where the cultural conversations are happening.
Yes, there is absolute value in it when it’s an actual dialogue. One person during the promotion for Beyond the Lights had said [on Twitter] that she liked the trailer, but because of the suicide element, she said, “I bet they’re gonna fuck it up and make a joke of mental health.” So I responded, and we had a great dialogue. When people don’t want to have a dialogue, and they just want to attack you, that’s when I think it’s damaging. I don’t mind criticism if it can improve the work—does it make me think about something I hadn’t thought about?
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